Removing over the counter medicines (OTCs) from the prescription list has only saved the NHS £32m in the past two years, despite predicted annual savings of £97m.   

Guidance instructing primary care prescribers to stop routinely prescribing OTCs for certain health conditions was issued in March 2018, with NHS England initially predicting that the change could save up to £136m a year, ‘once all discounts and clawbacks have been accounted for’ - although this figure was later revised to £97m.  

But in a written response to a parliamentary question published yesterday (20 August), Conservative peer Lord Bethell said only an estimated £32m has been saved since the guidance came in.

He said: ‘This reduction includes spending on over the counter items for conditions that are self-limiting and conditions which lend themselves to self-care, as well as vitamins, minerals and probiotics.’

Commenting on the figures, Alistair Buxton, PSNC Director of NHS Services, said: ‘Deprescribing policies were introduced as a way to save costs for the NHS and it appears that they have achieved that. For pharmacies, the policies mean a reduction in prescription volume and an increase in potential work with people and patients needing over the counter medicines.’

Contractors told the Pharmacist they were surprised by how little impact the reduction of prescription OTC medicines has had on their pharmacies.

Darren Powell, a community pharmacist in Doncaster, said the impact on pharmacies in his area has not been particularly substantial because there has been ‘no draconian switch to non-prescribing of OTC meds,’ despite the new guidance.

He added that patients have ‘on the whole’ bought the OTC medicines they needed, but they will have also been ‘hardest hit’ by the change because there are ‘clear risks to those patients who can’t afford to buy products going without’.

No significant impact

Paul Antenen, operations manager at Kamsons Pharmacy, told the Pharmacist the guidance ‘had not affected the pharmacy as he feared it might have done.’ He put this down to the fact that Kamson pharmacies are not situated in deprived areas of the UK.

‘Many customers were happy to buy their own OTC medicines and were supportive of measures to protect the NHS,’ he said.

However, he noted a drop in sales of some OTC medications such as head lice treatment, which may suggest that people are not treating certain conditions if they cannot access the medication through the NHS.

Similarly, Simon Walker, a pharmacist at Crossley F (Chemists) Ltd in Blackpool – one of the 20% most deprived districts in England – said that the guidance ‘had not affected his pharmacy a great deal.’

He said: ‘Prescription figures did drop a little bit – but they are now up again. We also made up for the loss of money through other means.’

Simon Butterworth, a pharmacist at Hawkshead Pharmacy in the Lake District also said he had seen ‘virtually no impact’ since the guidance was published and that some GP surgeries in his locality are still putting most OTC medications on prescription.